If DeMar DeRozan were to ever get a pass for not playing defense, it’s when he’s lined up against LeBron James while James is driving to the rim. This happened Monday. We’ll call what DeRozan did a business decision.
Poor DeRozan must have nightmares about LeBron. He just wanted to go home by the end last night. pic.twitter.com/FElq4rMscA— Laker Film Room (@LakerFilmRoom) November 26, 2019
DeRozan ran up the stairs in his escape from James. Backing away wasn’t very Spursian of him, but these are not the Spurs we’re used to. San Antonio sits at 6-12, the third-worst record in the Western Conference. Before Monday’s 114-104 loss to the Lakers, the Spurs had beaten the Knicks; before the Knicks, the Spurs had lost eight straight. It was the franchise’s longest such streak since 1996. (Though there’s always a pro-Pop stat to look at, even in the bad times: San Antonio is the only team without a nine-game losing streak in the last 30 years.)
In his 24 seasons as head coach, Gregg Popovich has turned around many sorry teams by recasting roster shortcomings as strengths. But the 2019-20 Spurs feel different. The defense is lackluster. (San Antonio has the league’s fifth-worst defensive rating.) There’s little ball movement. (They make the eighth-fewest passes per game.) Pop’s superannuated midrange offense may not pull through to the new decade. (They shoot the fewest 3s.) The stats are damning; the aura is lost.
San Antonio’s tenacious reputation spans decades. When I think of the Spurs, I think of defense. I think of Kawhi Leonard pinning a shot to the backboard. I think of Tony Parker busting past a screen to keep his man. Not a phone in sight, just players defending in the moment.
Fast forward to 2019, and here’s DeRozan standing by as Bradley Beal trots to the rim:
I don't think Rudy was very happy with DeMar for standing there and watching Beal lay this ball in. pic.twitter.com/hKGEopGsIv— CharlieOCharles (@CharlieOCharles) November 21, 2019
If DeRozan were the only problem on the Spurs, the fix would be simple. Trade him. He has lazy defensive spells, doesn’t offer as much off the ball as one superstar should in this modern era, and doesn’t always take the open, unforced shot. But San Antonio has larger foundational issues that it isn’t used to.
The Spurs organization used to run like a Ferris wheel. New players were added at each stop while those in their primes were at the top. It rotated season by season, cycling out the old with freshly groomed talent. It’s not fair to say Kawhi Leonard broke the system, but he at least disrupted it by asking for a trade. DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge sit alone at the peak now, and there are few reliable veterans in the cabins ahead. San Antonio’s century-defining heroes finally had to hop off, and without Manu Ginobili, who retired in 2018, or Parker, who signed with the Hornets in 2018 and retired the summer after, only Patty Mills remains from the 2014 title team. (Marco Belinelli was also on that championship team, but went to four other franchises afterward before returning to San Antonio last season.) The young Spurs are slowing down the ride. Dejounte Murray, who was ceremoniously handed the starting point guard spot by Parker two seasons ago, has been so ineffective that he’s been moved to the bench. Lonnie Walker IV is still trying to get consistent minutes. Kyle Anderson left a summer ago.
It’s strange to see a Spurs team without direction. There’s no clear next step, either this season or long-term. Murray’s limitations as a shooter and ball handler (he’s averaging 4.1 turnovers per 36 minutes) are exacerbated by the lack of perimeter options around him. Mills is having a career year in scoring (hitting 44.8 percent from deep), yet is contributing only 11.6 points per game. Aldridge and DeRozan are still fenced into the midrange. There’s a shortage of ball handlers. There’s a shortage of defenders. There’s a shortage of options to move forward.
Part of Popovich’s legend is his ability to pull teams together. He’s guided San Antonio teams through transition periods before, while still making it to the postseason. The Spurs have made the postseason for 22 years straight, each full season that Pop has overseen. There’s still time for the Spurs to recover, but not getting a seed would mark the official end to an era, one that was expected to conclude with his retirement. After enough time, even the sturdiest rides break down.